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Ayahuasca Addiction & Abuse

Ayahuasca is a powerful psychedelic plant medicine traditionally used in South American shamanic practices. It is now used recreationally in the U.S. Some people have reported using ayahuasca to treat addiction, although scientific evidence on its efficacy is limited. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence of people becoming addicted to ayahuasca.

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What Is Ayahuasca?

The indigenous communities situated within the Amazon basin have been using ayahuasca for generations as a plant medicine. To prepare this brew, they combine two primary plants: the ayahuasca vine and chacruna leaves, both of which contain DMT, an active psychedelic ingredient. 

The effects of consuming ayahuasca can range from visual and auditory hallucinations to profound changes in perception, leading to deep emotional release and enhanced spirituality. 

Ongoing studies have revealed the guided use of this drug may have therapeutic benefits, but the drug has not yet been deemed safe for human use by a modern, respected medical body. Importantly, potential hazards must also be taken into account, including potentially detrimental impacts on both a person’s physical and mental well-being.

How Does It Affect the Brain?

By interacting with our body’s natural chemistry through binding with serotonergic receptors, which control how we process information related to our mood states, ayahuasca creates powerful shifts in both a user’s cognitive experience and sense of self. 

Acting primarily through its principal active ingredient, DMT (a highly potent psychedelic molecule), this plant-based brew stimulates these pathways into overdrive, causing user-reported hallucinations that last several hours at a time. In addition to DMT, however, another key ingredient found in ayahuasca called harmine has also been shown to play a role by reducing breakdown rates for naturally occurring serotonin molecules.

The default mode network (DMN) is responsible for regulating self-reflection and mind-wandering within the brain. Recent research suggests that ayahuasca can impact this network through reduced activity levels. 

This reduction can ultimately lead to ego dissolution, or the dissolving sense of one’s sense of self, when taking ayahuasca. While a powerful psychedelic effect, this dissolution is temporary.

Various elements are difficult to predict and can impact how ayahuasca affects the mind. Potential complexities range from person to person, doses, and situational specifics. The exploration into how ayahuasca influences our cognitive psyche is ongoing. 

It is being tested for successful therapeutic advantages in addressing critical mental health ailments, including but not limited to anxiety disorders, substance abuse and addictions, or depressive states. 

Who Abuses Ayahuasca?

Because the drug isn’t currently accepted for any type of medical or recreational use in modern medicine, any type of ayahuasca use (outside of sanctioned research uses) is considered misuse or abuse at this time. It is worth noting, however, this abuse will generally be of a different kind than is typically associated with “drug abuse.” 

Spiritual Exploration

Utilizing ayahuasca may often be seen as a means of spiritual exploration or therapeutic aid. Traditional shamanic practices in the Amazon basin have long recognized ayahuasca as a tool for connecting with nature and developing insights into life’s meaning. Social uses include personalized development through exploring others’ insights on behavioral anomalies within oneself that one may seek to change. 

Applications in Conventional Medicine

Supposedly, the power of ayahuasca lies in its ability to heal physical and mental health conditions that conventional medicine may not always solve completely. With strong roots in traditional healing practices from centuries ago for specifically handling illnesses like depression, anxiety disorder, and other conditions, this drug is often used in an attempt to heal or grow. While this type of use still isn’t advised, it should at least only be engaged in with the help of a trained, experienced guide.

Although research regarding the effectiveness of using ayahuasca for therapy is mixed, many researchers have hope that this traditional plant can be used in a professional, medical context sometime soon. That said, it’s important to note that at present no formal guidelines recommend or endorse ayahuasca’s use in clinical settings for treating medical conditions. 

It is also important to acknowledge shamans and expert ayahuasca guides aren’t trained medical doctors. Despite this, some of their beliefs and practices may have legitimate medical value.

Can Ayahuasca Use Become Dangerous?

Ayahuasca isn’t usually considered to have much risk of causing immediate harm since it is mainly utilized within controlled ceremonial settings. Nevertheless, its overconsumption might result in adverse effects on both one’s physical and psychological state. Such outcomes include incidents of serotonin syndrome accompanied by psychotic episodes as well as digestive complications. 

Prior consultation with professionals who are skilled in leading guided ayahuasca use can’t be emphasized enough. Use can become dangerous if a user indulges in ayahuasca use and has a psychotic episode without the aid of a skilled guide to help keep them safe. It can be incredibly dangerous if someone wanders away in an altered state.

Is Dependence Possible?

The direct stimulation of the brain’s reward center, as seen with opioids and cocaine, doesn’t occur with ayahuasca, greatly reducing its addictive potential. 

Even though people typically don’t seek out the intense and difficult experiences associated with using ayahuasca as part of a recreational use, users still can become dependent on it psychologically to help them better cope with issues around their emotions or other issues.

Can You Overdose on Ayahuasca?

The consumption of ayahuasca in excessive quantities can induce adverse effects, though there is no established lethal dosage. The intensity and manifestation of these effects may be subject to the individual’s body chemistry, the amount consumed, or other influencing factors.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that ayahuasca ceremonies are typically led by experienced practitioners or shamans who take care to prepare the brew exactly as they have in the past. They may also provide safety guidance throughout the experience to diminish risks of overdose or harmful outcomes. 

If you are using ayahuasca on your own, overdose is much more likely.

Overdose Symptoms

Some possible signs of an ayahuasca overdose include the following:

  • Severe vomiting or diarrhea
  • Rapid heart rate or high blood pressure
  • Intense anxiety or panic attacks
  • Psychotic symptoms, such as delusions or hallucinations
  • Seizures or convulsions

Notably, most reports that ayahuasca has directly caused deaths seem to be exaggerated. More commonly, other elements of the way a ceremony was conducted or people being improperly tended to while high on the effects of ayahuasca can generally be more directly attributed to these deaths. 

How to Stop Abusing Drugs

Repeated, heavy ayahuasca use isn’t a common issue, but if you do struggle to stop abusing it or similar drugs, there are some steps you can take to get well. Experts like doctors, therapists, and addiction specialists can offer guidance during the recovery process. 

In therapy, you can learn to identify potential triggers that may lead to drug abuse before entering situations that may be challenging. You can develop customized management strategies in order to form a personal relapse prevention plan that can reduce the risks of falling back into old habits. 

Drug addiction support groups have proven helpful in fostering accountability within individuals seeking to recover from substance abuse issues. The people you meet in these groups can form the foundation of your support network in recovery, and you can turn to these individuals when things get tough.

Choosing to prioritize self-care during your recovery journey is imperative for achieving sustainable progress. Even small and seemingly unrelated changes like adopting healthy habits like exercising regularly, eating healthfully, and getting enough sleep are often key factors in supporting overall physical health and emotional stability.

If you have any mental health issues that are complicating your recovery from ayahuasca abuse, it’s important to have those addressed. Otherwise, relapse is more likely. A comprehensive addiction treatment program will ensure you are treated as a whole person, including any co-occurring physical or mental health disorders.

Updated December 1, 2023
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